For a world that seems more connected than ever, the divides seem to run deeper. It’s something that has struck Rabbi Rachael Bregman and sent her seeking answers.
“People hate what they don’t understand and they can’t understand what they don’t know,” she said.
“When you think about it, we are really divided and we tend to stay with the same people. That’s true whether it’s based on where you live, your color, how much money you make or where you worship. It’s easier and easier to be strangers.”
A few years back, she started reaching out to leaders in the larger faith community.
Bregman and the others worked to organize a community Seder meal set around Passover and Easter. It was incredibly well-attended and became a highly anticipated annual event.
But the popularity of the Seder inspired the organizers to do more. Last year, they put together a community Shabbat dinner.
“We wanted to do something beyond the Seder and thought it would be really amazing to share our rituals with the community and to open a doorway to come together in this space,” Bregman said. “We wanted to help fight against that sense of separation between people.”
One of the clergy members involved in the planning process was the Rev. Chris Noyes, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Brunswick.
“My involvement with the community Shabbat dinner arises from my involvement in the annual planning for the community Passover Seder meal,” he said.
“After the 2017 Passover Seder, we who met for planning desired for a more intimate way — and a continuing way — to build community here in Brunswick, especially since the annual Passover Seder events have been so well attended.”
The group held the first event on a Friday evening, which happened to coincide with the horrific mass shooting at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018.
“Last year, we hosted the first community dinner and there was a good turnout, with many I imagine attending to show support in response to the horrible and tragic mass shooting at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue,” Noyes said.
Bregman says that the massacre underscored the need for such a community gathering.
“It highlighted how extremely important that we do things to craft spaces where people can come together. Hate crimes in this country are on the rise. That’s why we want to come together at the table and sit down together,” she said.
They hope to continue the communal spirit they built last year.
The group will host another community Shabbat meal at 6 p.m. Nov. 15 at First United Methodist Church in Brunswick.
Along with Temple Beth Tefilloh and First Presbyterian, other hosts include First United Methodist, St. Francis Xavier and the Unitarian Universalists of Coastal Georgia.
All they ask is that attendees bring a covered dish and an open heart.
“The idea of sitting at a table with others and sharing a meal is a powerful way to friendships, to make connections and help break down the false images and stereotypes we may hold about others,” Noyes said.
While the mission is a critical one, the event itself is light-hearted. In addition to the food, there are games to help break the ice.
“It is so much fun, it’s just a blast. Last year, we had people stand in a circle and eliminated people in terms of how long they’ve lived in town,” Bregman said.
“We ended up with someone in his 70s and someone in their 30s, both who have been here the longest — over 35 years. They had never met but they had this moment of connectedness.”
Along the way, there’s a lot of laughter, which the group feels helps to facilitate relationships and build lasting bonds.
“All I know is that when people sit at a table and have time to talk, they share stories. And our stories shed light on who we are and they invite others into our lives. And there is laughter … and laughter breaks down walls,” Noyes said.
In addition to sharing experiences, Bregman also walks attendees through the parts of the traditional Jewish Shabbat meal and blessing.
“Generally speaking, it is a home ritual and a blessing for the family around the dinner table. We do the blessing together with transliteration so those who want can participate and share in saying in the words. Of course, there’s always the option to say, ‘amen,’” Bregman said.
The laid-back style of the event is a way of learning and sharing without formality. The meal too is constructed in the same way.
“It’s a potluck dinner with a little bit of everything. We just trusted that it would work out and it did. Last year, the tables were overflowing with homemade or store-bought goodness,” Bregman said.
“It was like the loaves and fish at the wedding at Cana. But it’s all just very laid back, you don’t have to dress up … but you can.”
Bregman, Noyes and the rest of the organizers hope that the meal will set the foundation for more communal activities across the faith communities, including the upcoming Seder set for April 2, 2020.
“The invitation is open to everyone — all ages, backgrounds, races — everyone. We can’t meet each other if we don’t show up,” Bregman said.